Editor’s Note: Today lay missioner Annemarie Barrett kicks off a special five-part series on how her time in mission in Latin America is shaping her understanding of racism and privilege. Learn about the significance of the title.
Every day I am learning more about what I do not know, my own ignorance.
In choosing to live in Cochabamba, Bolivia, my entire perspective is changing.
I now live in the southern hemisphere instead of in the northern hemisphere. I now speak more Spanish than English day-to-day. And I am regularly surrounded by friends and co-workers speaking Quechua, one of the 36 state recognized native languages in Bolivia.
Before Bolivia, as a white person, I spent most of my life surrounded by white people and immersed in white culture, that culture has primarily been my context and what I knew.
Now I am living and working primarily in communities of color in a culture that is not my own.
And before I began to live in Cochabamba, I did not realize how radically that change in my context would change my perspective.
As a white person who grew up immersed in white culture, I was not required to think much about race or racism. I did not have to think about racism much because I did not know how it affected me and did not see how it affected anyone I knew.
And in my own context of growing up in the United States, where mainstream dialogue around racism is primarily framed as a black and white issue, I had not realized that I would observe issues of racism in my experience in Cochabamba.
But it did not take long to see how racism affected my interactions and relationships with people in the local community where I live now.
As I learned more about racism, I also began to learn more about the living history of colonization throughout the Americas. I use the phrase “living history” because I have seen the continued effects of colonization and how they are alive and evolving today.
One small, but concrete, example of the effects of colonization is in the story I share in the video above about the pollera, or a traditional Bolivian skirt.
Centuries after colonization began here, on this land that we now call South America, the history and the trauma are still remembered and shared, and as a white person, my presence itself can evoke those traumas and memories.
But what one might not hear upon first listening to that story above is the connection between that living history of colonization and the reality of racism today in Cochabamba.
In the next few weeks, through this blog series, I hope to make that connection more clear and focus especially on what that reality has taught me about living in solidarity as a white person.
St. Francis of Assisi so prophetically modeled for us how to leave behind what he knew to be true of his affluent and privileged way of life, to learn and begin to live within a different reality. He chose humility and invested in relationships outside of his own culture and context.
I consider it a privilege to be invited to live in solidarity with the local community where I live and work here. I believe it is a privilege to be invited to participate in the local culture. And I believe that that privilege comes with a responsibility to engage my own process of growth and transformation as a white person, to challenge my own privilege and racism.
The relationships I am forming with friends in the local community here are inviting me to grow every day and are opening my eyes to a reality that I never knew.
And while this journey requires me personally to grow in humility, faith and courage as I engage my own ignorance, it requires even more trust, faith, vulnerability and courage on the part of the local community.
Yes, it is painful for me to acknowledge my personal connection with those who have historically oppressed people of color, because it is painful to be connected to such an ugly history.
But it is exponentially more painful and challenging for those in the local community here, who have been historically oppressed and continue to suffer from that oppression today, to engage this process of reconciliation with me.
Thus it is truly sacred ground that we are walking on as we choose to engage the process of building more just relationships together.
I invite you to join me throughout the next month as I share more about my own process of waking up and engaging what it means to live in solidarity.
Next Thursday I will be digging deeper into what white privilege is and how it can affect our relationships across race and culture.
About the title, “Through the Eye of the Needle”
The image of the camel passing through the eye of the needle is one that is familiar to many Catholics and is used often in reflections about material wealth. The Bible verse references material wealth as being the barrier that keeps us from entering the kingdom of heaven. As we reflect today on the injustices that exist in society, racism is at the root of the suffering of many of our sisters and brothers. As a white person, my white privilege is one of the barriers that keeps me from participating in the kingdom of heaven today: it blinds me to the suffering of others and allows the suffering to continue. My apathy toward racial injustice makes me complicit in racial injustice. In order to pass through the eye of the needle, I must start to deconstruct the blinders of my white privilege and engage the journey towards racial reconciliation.